Monday, June 13

How to Read Books

On Sunday night some friends and I got together for the inaugural meeting of The Book Club. Our Book Club. I don't know, it doesn't have a clever name, we just wanted to read a book together. We all made 2 suggestions of something each of us has been meaning to read or absolutely adored in the past and has been aching to read again, threw the suggestions into my bear hat, and drew blindly. The first choice was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, which I'm actually itching to read, but Kiah read it last month and we didn't like the idea of starting a trilogy together, so we drew again and all agreed to read American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I've only read his short story collections and some of The Sandman series, but I lovvvvved it all, so I'm really excited to check out one of his novels. Bonus: The novel is currently in the works to be made into a 6-part series on HBO produced by Tom Hanks, who I love and will always love. Where would we be without Tom Hanks?

Anyway, I thought since I have a degree in literature and God knows I'm not doing anything with it, I would write a quick, loose guide on what we in the biz (the biz of reading books) call Close Reading. It's important to note that reading and understanding and analyzing a book is a personal, internal process, which is exactly why things like book clubs and literature degrees exist, so this isn't just How to Close Read, it's how I do my close reading.

Highlighters and Pens (or Erasable Pencils if you don't want to mark up your book.)
Page Markers (Some people just dog ear their books or use a system of recollection that involves frantically flipping through the book until you find whatever you're looking for. Just do what feels natural for you.)

Before you start reading, do a bit of general research about the author, genre and time period in which the book was written.
This will give you a huge head start in the understanding process. For example, I'm currently reading a book by W. Somerset Maugham. First, I know he is a homosexual. Second, in the period in which he lived and wrote, misogyny was almost chic. Third, the book is loosely based on a real person. Knowing this, the touches of sexism and trying to understand whether or not to like a character who says "Women are very unintelligent" not only becomes complicated, but also easier because now I'm asking the right kind of questions: Is Maugham channeling himself through this character? Does he relate to the person he's based his novel on or does he despise him? Does he want me to hate this man or to empathize with him? Understanding the context of what you're reading opens the door to analysis, so check out Wikipedia, but be sure to avoid plot synopses!

Pay attention to major themes.
In literary theory, the school and science of literary study, there are a million and one schools of thought. Feminist, queer and lesbian, Marxism, post-colonialism and then even really scary things like structuralism and semiotics. Basically, what they do is look at literature politically and historically. They answer questions that the book may not even ask. Politicizing a novel is an important way to understand literature. Think about what is being said about religion, sex, gender, race, economics, history, war, and all those things they debate about during election years. And then think about the time frame when the book was written. What does it mean to write a novel with this as a major theme in this time period? By looking at themes, both historical and political, you'll come to understand the writing in a very different, often deeper way.

The best way to understand what you're reading is to read it multiple times.
This isn't always feasible or even necessary, like when you're reading for entertainment or a book club, but it's important to keep this fact in mind. Secondary readings make the deep thinking process easier because it's a lot nicer to go through a book looking for themes and images that pertain to a theory or question when you're not so concerned with where the plot is going. For instance, I recently read Frankenstein for a second time in a class. I already knew how it ended and exactly what happened, so I was able to form a thesis early on and gather quotes that helped me prove my point. That's not to say that it's impossible to form and prove a thesis with one reading, but secondary readings are a huge help. I never would have been able to say "Oh, I bet there is a theme of classism in this novel!" just by reading the back jacket.

Keeping this in mind, rather than trying to prove a point with your first read, instead think broadly. As you're reading, certain things will make you raise your eyebrow, ask yourself a question, feel something (anger, sadness, confusion, etc.), and force you, without thinking, to go back and read a paragraph or sentence again. As casual readers, these are simply reflexes and we don't often take note of them. As close readers, these are things that matter and will later help to form greater ideas. This is where your writing utensils and page markers come in handy. Note what you're rereading and think about why it made you stop. What kind of emotion are you feeling? Does it remind you of something else? Does what you're looking at refer back to something you've read and noted on before? Or did you just find a particularly lovely image? All of this is important.

Ask and do what's in your power to answer questions. People think books are the coolest because they force us to look beyond our subjective understanding of the world and rethink what we understand as truth. Which is true, they do, but if you don't embrace that then you're just reading something the way you would watch a movie or a television show. Which is fine, but for the sake of close reading, you've got to do more. If there's a word used that you don't understand, look it up. If there's a place mentioned that you're not familiar with, Google it. If you can't understand a character's motivation or actions, write that down. You'll come back to it.

Reflect upon finishing. Instead of finishing your book, closing it and moving on, spend some more time with it. Does everything make sense? Go back and read your notes and questions again. Have things come into better light now that you're done? Or are you still confused? Answer the questions you feel you can, and hold on to the others.

Aside from the questions you're still unclear on or have subjective answers to ("I think the reason he bought that taco was because..."), what you're bringing to a group discussion will be your likes, dislikes, and personal understanding of what your group has read. Keep in mind that in literature, it's very hard and takes a remarkable kind of ignorant to come up with a wrong answer. Wrong answers usually only happen when you haven't actually read what everyone else is talking about.

I hope this wasn't a boring or stupid blog post that nobody reads or benefits from, but I enjoyed writing it. I guess I'm taking stock in my education. Maybe I'm never going to make a single dollar from knowing how to close read, but all of this was the reason I got my degree in English in the first place, and if it wasn't English it wasn't going to be anything at all.

1 comment:

emily said...

No, this is a good blog post! I wish I had people around to start a book club with, I read so/too much. I hope you enjoy the Neil Gaiman!